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Tight Lacing: Taking Great Pains with Fashion

"Tight Lacing, or Fashion before Ease," by Bowles and Carver after John Collet, London, England, ca. 1770–1775. From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Susan Pryor

"I hope Miss Sparrow will not fall into the absurd fashion of the wasp-waisted ladies. Mr. Pringle declares he has had four of his patients martyrs to that folly (indeed wickedness) and when they were open’d it was evident that their deaths were occasioned by strait lacing."


Thus did a Mrs. Delaney write in 1775 in her Autobiography and Correspondence, concerning the unfortunate, but fashionable, custom of stays and tight lacing.

Throughout history the human body has been pulled, poked, squeezed, and generally manipulated into many and various confining devices designed to enhance one bodily feature or detract from another; all in the name of beauty and fashion. With the possible exception of Chinese foot binding, perhaps no form of confinement is better known than the European custom of tightly lacing stays. Though this custom was considered the height of conventional fashion, it was at the same time considered by many to be, and indeed was, hazardous to one’s health.

The popularity of tight lacing developed around the 16th century in an attempt to support the body, enhance the breasts, and make the waist appear smaller than it was naturally. This tight cinching of the torso was usually achieved through the wearing of stays—a vest-like garment that descended to the waist and beyond in front and back with tabs cut around the bottom to flair out over the hips and enhance the slender appearance of the body. These stays were made from layers of heavy linen or canvas, stiffened with glue or paste, and featured whalebone strips inserted and stitched in between the layers.

Children, even babies, were subject to this tight lacing; it had to be started early so that by the time a child grew to an adult, disciplined self-control, which was the maxim of social philosophy, was second nature. The tight cinching of the waist literally forced this level of self-control because the wearer was so very limited in mobility. In his Diary in July 1774, Philip Vickers Fithian wrote that stays were:

produced upwards so high that we can have scarce any view at all of the Ladies Snowy Bosoms, & on the contrary, they are extended downwards so low that whenever Ladies who wear them, either young or old, have occasion to walk, the motion necessary for Walking, must, I think, cause a disagreeable Friction of some part of the body against the lower Edge of the Stays which is hard & unyielding.

Front-lacing stays, possibly America, ca. 1760-1775, From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.The persistence of wearing stays is a good illustration of how fashion sense has prevailed over health sense. All through the 18th century—and even earlier—doctors and other enlightened educators encouraged an end to the injurious practice. Doctors wrote treatises cautioning women against severe tight lacing, claiming that improper digestion, narrow breasts, foul breath, and deformed internal organs were the result of such willfulness.

As fate would have it, the tracts opposing such fashions were written primarily in Latin, with some in French, German, and Dutch. Many of those engaged in tight lacing were interested only in fashion, so the information condemning stays was not always in the hands of those who needed it. Others, of course, were simply willful and stubborn and continued to be in fashion at the expense of their health. Vehement retorts were recorded from ladies who boasted of 16-inch waists and perfect health. One letter published in Queen assured that "if the various organs are prevented from taking a certain form or direction they will accommodate themselves to any other with perfect ease."

As early as 1653 Bulwer’s Artificial Changeling maintained the folly of the fashion-conscious woman:

Another foolish affectation there is in young virgins, though grown big enough to be wiser; but they are led blindfold by a custom to a fashion pernicious beyond imagination, who, thinking a slender waist a great beauty, strive all they possibly can by straight lacing themselves to attain unto a wand-like smallness of waist, never thinking themselves fine enough till they can span the waist. By which deadly artifice... shut up their waists in a whalebone prison, they open the door to consumptions.

Those at the opposite extreme claimed the wearing of stays was itself essential to health. These individuals maintained that tight lacing was necessary for children in cities especially where "thick air" was breathed in, and where people lived in close proximity to one another. Tight support of the body was adopted to preserve the so-called "soft-wax" of the young body before bones were perfectly solidified. It was also claimed that tight lacing, helping to develop and maintain the upright growth of the spine, fostered a symmetrical development of the chest, and prevented round shoulders. Some of the justifying claims said that any discomfort was temporary; and one devotee of the fashion stated that she felt no discomfort whatever after the first two years"Titus Shapes Figure Frames," by William Humphrey, London, England, 1778. From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation..

There were also, as in most controversies, those who chose a middle-of the-road course. These moderates did not oppose orthopedic, preventative, or protective corsetry, and they placed the blame of bodily injury or dysfunction on over-tight stays or an injudicious wearing of them. German physician Gottlieb Oelssner described himself as such a moderate. Nicholas Andry was another who advocated the use of stays but stressed moderation and frequent sizing. He maintained that stays should stand out at a distance of two fingers breadth from the upper part.

Concern over the fashion fueled not only numerous medical treatises but also newspaper and magazine articles. The Weekly Register in 1731 reported:

The Stay is a part of modern dress that I have an invincible aversion to, as giving a stiffness to the whole frame, which is void of all grace and an enemy of beauty; but as I would not offend the ladies by absolutely condemning what they are fond of I will recall my censure.

From Mary Frampton’s Journal in 1780 the persistence of tight lacing is shown even in the face of incredible discomfort:

The perfection of figure according to the then fashion was the smallness of the circumference into which your unfortunate waist could be compress, and many a poor girl hurt her health very materially by trying to rival the reigning beauty of that day, the Duchess of Rutland, who was said to squeeze herself to the size of an orange and a half.

On the other hand, some women were willing to compromise their sense of fashion in some circumstances. Fithian wrote of his employer’s wife:

To day I saw a Phenomenon, Mrs. Carter without Stays!—She complains of a pain in her breast, that prevents her wearing them, she says that She is always supposing the worst, &fears it is a Cancer breeding there.

Many women lamented in journals or autobiographies that the stays were unwelcome and frightful but, nevertheless, in the interest of fashion reconciled themselves to the discomfort. Elizabeth Ham, whose autobiography Elizabeth Ham by Herself, written in the 1790s, provided evidence of this:

The first reformation made in my appearance was affected by a stay-maker. I was stood on the window seat, whilst a man measured me for the machine, which, in consideration of my youth, was to be only what was called half-boned, that is instead of having the bones placed as close as they could be, an interval the breadth of one was left vacant between each. Not withstanding, the first day of wearing them was very nearly purgatory, and I question if I was sufficiently aware of the advantage of a fine shape to reconcile me to the punishment.

“Tight Lacing, or Hold Fast Behind,” by M. Darly, London, England, 1777. From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.Verse writers also made their feelings known in the controversy over tight lacing and fashion sense. Rhymed Nathaniel Cotton in Visions in Verse in 1751:

Hear, ye fair mothers of our Isle
Nor scorn your poet’s homely style.
You think it of importance great
T’ensure your daughter’s growing straight;
For this, such anxious moments feel
And ask the friendly aid of steel
For this import the distant cane,
Or slay the monarch of the main
Your cares of body are confined,
Few fear obliquity of mind;—
Deformity of heart I call
The worst deformity of all.

The real tragedy in this wayward course was that once stays were worn for a period of time the abdominal muscles, whose responsibility it is to support the torso, were no longer strong enough to do so without the continued use of stays. Consequently, even those women who decided to quit stays and heed the health warning found themselves unable to be rid of the habit.

Socially fashion-conscious women continued to advocate and wear stays, paying little attention to health concerns, throughout the 18th century and into the 19th, at which time the fashionable style of the stays—now called corsets—changed and with it the desired shape. Nevertheless, the passion for a tiny waistline remained, as did internal injuries, exaggerated torso lines, and secret laments from women who steadfastly refused to abandon fashion in the name of health.


This article was written by Susan Pryor, Senior Interpreter, Pasteur & Galt Apothecary, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.